26 Nov, 2009

The sorry state of stage photography | Andrew Haydon

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Theatre photography normally operates via two angles: the ubiquitous close-up or the mid-torso action shot. But what can the photos really tell us about a play?

Here’s a question: when could you last tell what a theatre production actually looked like from its photograph alone?

Stage photography of the sort that accompanies reviews or blogs is usually sourced in two ways: either directly from the theatre or taken by a selection of press photographers invited to shoot the show. Both are common, the former increasingly so. However, it isn’t really the provenance of the photographs that concerns me about a production’s imagery, it’s what they show – or rather, don’t show.

Theatre photography seems to have got into a bit of a rut. There’s a predictable formula at play, especially when photography is provided by the theatres. Here, the single headshot or its more animated group equivalent (mid-action, mid-torso), rule.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these photos per se. Objectively speaking, they can make good photographs, as one might expect from professionals. They are sometimes even quite exceptional: sharp, well-composed and with beautifully saturated colour that does much credit to the work of the lighting designer. For instance, don’t get me wrong, I think this is a lovely picture of Ben Whishaw and Katherine Parkinson, but what does it really tell you of what the production looks like? Compare these photos with those from Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Kafka’s The Trial on my blog. There’s not a headshot in sight. Instead, we have sweeping panoramic views of the set and its characters, use of clever angles and a sense of what the audience were actually looking at.

Like a few others, I was at The Habit of Art last week, and it’s as good an illustration as any of this problem. The play gives us a play in rehearsal within a play. To this end, the Lyttleton’s large stage is transformed into a cavernous rehearsal room with a mock-up of the set for the metafictional play plonked in the middle. One can readily imagine such a set eventually stranded like an island, were the play ever to go into production, floating, as if suspended, in the usual blackness and picked out with spotlights. For the audience there is at once a big picture within a picture and within it, the things on which they choose to focus on.

The problem is, while this works perfectly in real life, it poses enormous difficulties for the photographer. A straight-on photograph of this dynamic staging would, I imagine, look a bit flat and lifeless, and to convey the scale of the set would reduce the actors on it to mere pinpricks when reproduced.
Add to that the fact that in the age of celebrity, a gradual collusion has allowed our focus to narrow on the stars – or starring roles. A waist-up photograph of a topless Daniel Radcliffe, for instance, told us little about Equus, but showed (almost) everything on which the news agenda was focused. I’m also willing to bet that when Thea Sharrock’s forthcoming production of The Misanthrope opens, not a single photograph will be published that doesn’t include Keira Knightley.

I find this deeply regrettable. Obviously, with the rise of multi-room, site-specific work, it is increasingly impossible to show a whole production from a single photograph. But, in terms of our semiotics, would it not be better if photographers worked to convey exciting whole-stage pictures rather than illustrating two hours of drama with a single celebrity headshot?As glossily produced and carefully composed as they can be, such pictures betray an agenda which is slowly strangling theatre coverage – and threatening theatre itself.

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